The supermercado of my undocumented childhood is the Fiesta on Bellaire at Hillcroft. If by some chance you’ve never been to a Fiesta Mart—which celebrated its 40th anniversary last year—imagine taking the ethnic foods aisle at your local supermarket and expanding it to fill a 100,000 square-foot building. My family arrived from Mexico in the summer of 1981, when I was 7 and Fiesta was 9, so you could say that I grew up in Fiesta and that Fiesta and I grew up together.
If you had asked me then, “What is an immigrant?” I would have said that an immigrant is someone who shops at Fiesta. My mother says that when we first got to Houston, we went there because it was the only store that stocked Mexican products and because the commercials jingled “Un cachito de lo nuestro” (A little piece of ours). There must have been neighborhood stores that would have satisfied my mother’s grocery needs, but it was Fiesta with its extravagant superstores that gave her a sense of the purchasing power she had as an immigrant consumer. Not only did the founders of Fiesta consciously target Hispanic immigrant communities, they fed immigrant nostalgia by offering food items from Latin American countries—tortillas, chiles, frijoles, pupusas, arepas, tamales, queso fresco.
To further entice recent arrivals, Fiesta dressed itself in hyperethnic garb: the bright red, green, and white colors of the Mexican flag were the mainstays of its logo and mascot, Pepe the Parrot, and the Fiesta sound system blared Mexican rancheras by Los Tigres del Norte, romantic ballads by Jose Jose, and tropical cumbias by Colombia’s La Sonora Dinamita.
And then of course there were those piñatas hanging from the ceiling. (I think that any list of Top Ten Things to Do in Houston should include counting the number of piñatas hanging from the ceiling of a Fiesta.) It all should have felt inauthentic, but somehow it didn’t. In fact, I think those hyperethnic statements were important to my immigrant mother and many other immigrants, helping them find a sense of belonging in the fourth largest city in the United States.
We couldn’t return home, but we could take a trip to the supermercado for a little taste of home—that’s what Fiesta meant to us. My family remained undocumented for five years, until we normalized our legal status under the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act; it was another three before we received our permanent resident cards. So during the eight years between the time we left and that first trip back home to Nuevo Laredo, Fiesta was all we had. My mother would pick up my little brother and me from school, drive past blocks and blocks of overpopulated southwest Houston apartment complexes, and head to our Fiesta.
If you had asked me then, “What is an American?” I would have answered that an American is someone who shops at Randall’s.
There, while she shopped, the two of us waited for her in the small food court area in the front of the store, which is where I bit into my first Salvadoran pupusa—that strange combination of doughy and crispy, with the cheese inside that oozes into your mouth. This was a little taste of El Salvador, someone else’s home. Like the huge jars of curtido—pickled sliced cabbage—pupusas were a signal that our community was larger than I’d thought, that it included Salvadoran and other Central American immigrants, people who said vos instead of tú. I remember hesitating at the sounds of the unfamiliar Spanish spoken by Central Americans at the store. This was another voice, another home, another taste that shared space with us at Fiesta.
As a well-known home away from home for immigrants, Fiesta also meant rumors of immigration raids. My grandmother Soledad always liked to tell the story of how we once barely missed being apprehended in one. She remembered walking into the store with four of her grandchildren: my two cousins, Joey and Yvonne, my brother Tomas and me. Two of us, my brother and I, were undocumented; two of us, my cousins, were citizens born in the U.S. Moments after we left the store, as my grandmother told it, immigration officials stormed the Fiesta. Being the oldest I must have sensed the worry in my grandmother, who felt in that moment that two of her grandchildren might suddenly disappear. Whatever the actual threat posed, it’s the story behind the story, my grandmother’s telling and retelling of the incident, that sticks out most in my mind. It is one way of remembering mi abuelita Chole. And it’s impossible to remember her without remembering Fiesta.
If you had asked me then, “What is an American?” I would have answered that an American is someone who shops at Randall’s. I sensed early on that there were two parallel Houstons: Fiesta Houston and Randall’s Houston. My Tia Pera worked as a housekeeper and nanny for the Wood family in those days, and one of her housekeeping duties was to buy groceries at Randall’s. As I befriended the Wood children and spent more time in their household, I began to notice how the inside of their refrigerator differed from the one at home. It was not a difference between poor and rich, or between better and worse (at least that’s not how I registered the difference). It was simpler than that: their refrigerator was stocked with food from Randall’s (sliced bread, sliced cheese), and ours with food from Fiesta (tortillas, more tortillas).
Our refrigerator had too much color, too much smell, too much flavor. Their refrigerator looked, smelled, and tasted American. I always loved their popsicles, the ones with the cream, and many other things besides. In fact, going into the Wood refrigerator was something that always appealed to me. There, I felt I might eat my way to becoming American, even as I found it reassuring to know that a refrigerator filled with food from Fiesta was awaiting me back home.
I live far from Fiesta now, but when I returned home recently, I made a special trip to Bellaire and Hillcroft. I took my camera, hoping to capture the hyperethnic images that had once had such an impact—the loud colors, smells, and tastes—of this supermercado experience. I wanted to capture the elote man in the parking lot roasting corn, the man selling bootleg CDs of the latest banda music and bootleg movie DVDs of the latest action Hollywood flicks, and the families walking in with empty grocery carts and out with overflowing ones.
I had only snapped a few pictures before a security guard informed me that cameras weren’t allowed, adding, “I don’t really have to explain why you can’t take photos, do I?” No, he didn’t. Just as the store was once the supermercado of my own undocumented childhood, now it’s the supermercado of someone else’s. I wonder whether Fiesta still means happiness to children, I thought, and stepped inside to count the piñatas hanging from the ceiling.
Javier O. Huerta is the author of American Copia: An Immigrant Epic (Arte Público Press, 2012).